Which came first? The corruption or the mistresses? In China, they most often go together.

The stories abound: from the corrupt official in Fujian who, in 2002, held the first (and only) annual competition to judge which of his 22 mistresses was most pleasing, to Liu Zhijun, the former railway minister deposed in 2011 for allegedly embezzling the equivalent of millions of dollars -- and maintaining a relatively modest 18 mistresses. The association is so strong, in fact, that it’s all but taken for granted in China that when an official falls due to his -- and it’s almost always a he -- misdeeds and miscalculations, the mistresses will be uncovered next.

And so, when Bo Xilai, the now deposed former Chongqing party secretary once widely expected to ascend to China’s ruling Politburo Standing Committee, and his wife were first connected to corruption and murder this spring, rumors of mistresses accompanied the allegations. Of these rumors, the most spectacular involved Zhang Ziyi, the popular Chinese actress best known in the West for her starring role in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (and her friendship with Wendi Deng Murdoch). Zhang’s lawyer has denied the allegations, going so far as to insist Zhang has never met Bo, and the movie star is suing media outlets which reported the accusations.

Nonetheless, there were supposedly many other women involved with Bo, including other starlets, and though nobody was able to prove anything, the rumors didn’t disappear. Rather, they intensified in the absence of news about what had happened to Bo since the Communist Party took him into custody in March. Would he be prosecuted? And on what crimes?

Official Incompetence

An answer arrived early last Friday evening, just as China was packing up for its National Day holiday. Xinhua, the state-owned news agency, published a story detailing Bo’s alleged crimes. Most were predictable -- bribery, embezzlement and official incompetence -- and did not make much of a ripple on China’s microblogs. What did cause a stir was a short, curiously worded sentence found in the middle of the Xinhua story: “Bo had or maintained improper sexual relationships with a number of women.”

Within a few hours, the phrase “had or maintained improper sexual relationships with a number of women” became a trending topic on Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblog, and it has remained one ever since. This, in itself, is astonishing: China’s Internet censors are a famously prudish bunch, especially when it comes to the private lives of high-ranking Communist Party leaders (including the deposed ones). In fact, until this weekend, various terms related to Bo (including his name associated with Zhang Ziyi) had been blocked as search terms on Sina Weibo.

But around the time the Xinhua story appeared, those blocks began to disappear, and Chinese netizens started making observations and asking questions of the sort rarely allowed about top officials and their personal lives. Take, for example, this earthy but pointed tweet to Sina Weibo from Qu So, a sex advice columnist in Shanghai:

“Party officials can always be found in improper affairs with women. Bo Xilai … couldn’t be exempted from those conventions and it was proven he was having affairs with a large number of women. This fact shows that Party officials are also human. In addition to talking about the Party spirit every day, they drop their pants to talk about humanity.”

Ethical Feelings

The trenchant observations on official China’s sexual mores aren’t confined to sex columnists. Some of China’s best-known writers have also staked out positions on this previously barred topic and started questioning what role the mistress allegations have in the overall prosecution of Bo Xilai and other corrupt officials. The answer, as enunciated in a scathing tweet by Cao Lin, a prolific young columnist at China Youth Daily, the official newspaper of China’s Communist Youth League, is that having mistresses isn’t a crime so much as a symptom of the widespread moral and ethical failings of Chinese officialdom.

“‘Had or maintained improper sexual relationships with a number of women’ is merely the most attention-grabbing accusation attached to corruption; it is the additive that makes corrupt people lose the last of their reputations. However, it seems that there isn’t an official who’s lost his position just because he ‘had or maintained improper sexual relationships with a number of women.’ Officialdom is a pit: If there’s abuse of power, there must be sex; if there’s sex there must be an exchange of money for power.”

Nobody is going to be prosecuted for sex; it’s the widespread abuse of power, and the buying of selling of it, that’s the issue. Cao’s is a provocative point that calls into question the prevalence of corruption in the Chinese Communist Party. It is, however, a point largely missed by those Chinese netizens who spend their time commenting on Bo and his alleged affairs. On Sina Weibo, to name just one microblog, netizens are positively obsessed with obtaining the names of Bo’s many alleged mistresses. According to a Sunday tweet by Liang Peng, an independent newspaper columnist and blogger, this gossipy obsession is a self-inflicted (and perhaps Party-inflicted) distraction:

“The phrase ‘had or maintained improper sexual relationships with a number of women’ cannot only ruin a person, but it can also divert our attention. Using the phrase ‘a number of women’ without naming the women results in endless rounds of gossip rather than a focus on the crimes that he committed.”

For now, as much of China enjoys a lazy holiday week, the netizens, at least, seem content to be distracted. The phrase “had or maintained improper sexual relationships with a number of women” is everyone’s favorite punch, the contemporary Chinese equivalent of LeBron James’ “I’m taking my talents to Miami.” The line has even been inserted into classic Chinese poems.

Private Lives

Nonetheless, there are exceptions to the characteristically lighthearted banter. In recent days, for example, one of the most popular jokes circulating on Sina Weibo compares the details of Bo’s personal life -- especially the penchant for mistresses -- to that of Mao Zedong. There are several varieties of the tweet, but the most popular version is, more or less, the one posted by Yan Lailai, a senior reporter at China’s Life magazine:

“He had improper sexual relationships with a number of women; he had awesome calligraphy; his assistant used to be his close comrade and then attempted to defect; his wife was given a suspended death penalty and his son has gone abroad; he started the trend of singing Red songs, and he fought the evil powers. He is always living in our hearts. He, the man, is our great Chairman Mao!”

If the goal of publicizing Bo’s personal failings was to embarrass him, the wide circulation of this joke suggests that the strategy was a poor one. Bo Xilai is no Mao Zedong, that’s for sure, and nobody will mistake the two. But it certainly can’t hurt Bo, or help the Communist Party, if China’s netizens are being reminded that the Party’s founder was a philanderer, too.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog and a contributor to the Ticker.)

Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View at the Ticker.